Mon, 23 Jan 2006
When it was decided to reissue the Doctor Dolittle books, we were faced with a challenging opportunity and decision. In some of the books there were certain incidents depicted that, in light of today's sensitivities, were considered by some to be disrespectful to ethnic minorities and, therefore, perhaps inappropriate for today's young reader. In these centenary editions, this issue is addressed.This note will summarize some of the changes to The Voyages of Doctor Dolittle. I have not examined the text exhaustively. I worked from memory, reading the Centenary Edition, and when I thought I noticed a change, I crosschecked the text against the Project Gutenberg version of the original text. So this does not purport to be a complete listing of all the changes that were made. But I do think it is comprehensive enough to give a sense of what was changed.
Many of the changes concern Prince Bumpo, a character who first appeared in The Story of Doctor Dolittle. Bumpo is a black African prince, who, at the beginning of Voyages, is in England, attending school at Oxford. Bumpo is a highly sympathetic character, but also a comic one. In Voyages his speech is sprinkled with inappropriate "Oxford" words: he refers to "the college quadrilateral", and later says "I feel I am about to weep from sediment", for example. Studying algebra makes his head hurt, but he says "I think Cicero's fine—so simultaneous. By the way, they tell me his son is rowing for our college next year—charming fellow." None of this humor at Bumpo's expense has been removed from the Centenary Edition.
Bumpo's first appearance in the book, however, has been substantially cut:
The Doctor had no sooner gone below to stow away his note-books than another visitor appeared upon the gang-plank. This was a most extraordinary-looking black man. The only other negroes I had seen had been in circuses, where they wore feathers and bone necklaces and things like that. But this one was dressed in a fashionable frock coat with an enormous bright red cravat. On his head was a straw hat with a gay band; and over this he held a large green umbrella. He was very smart in every respect except his feet. He wore no shoes or socks.In the revised edition, this is abridged to:
The Doctor had no sooner gone below to stow away his note-books than another visitor appeared upon the gang-plank. This was a black man, very fashionably dressed. (p. 128)I think it's interesting that they excised the part about Bumpo being barefooted, because the explanation of his now unmentioned barefootedness still appears on the following page. (The shoes hurt his feet, and he threw them over the wall of "the college quadrilateral" earlier that morning.) Bumpo's feet make another appearance later on:
I very soon grew to be quite fond of our funny black friend Bumpo, with his grand way of speaking and his enormous feet which some one was always stepping on or falling over.The only change to this in the revised version is the omission of the word 'black'. (p.139)
This is typical. Most of the changes are excisions of rather ordinary references to the skin color of the characters. For example, the original:
It is quite possible we shall be the first white men to land there. But I daresay we shall have some difficulty in finding it first."The bowdlerized version omits 'white men'. (p.120.)
Another typical cut:
"Great Red-Skin," he said in the fierce screams and short grunts that the big birds use, "never have I been so glad in all my life as I am to-day to find you still alive."(Long Arrow has been buried alive for several months in a cave.) The revised edition replaces "Great Red-Skin" with "Great Long Arrow", and "Mighty White Man" with "Mighty Friend". (p.223)
Another, larger change of this type, where apparently value-neutral references to skin color have been excised, is in the poem "The Song of the Terrible Three" at the end of part V, chapter 5. The complete poem is:
THE SONG OF THE TERRIBLE THREEThe ten lines in boldface have been excised in the revised version. Also in this vicinity, the phrase "the strength and weight of those three men of different lands and colors" has been changed to omit "and colors". (pp. 242-243)
Here's an interesting change:
Long Arrow said they were apologizing and trying to tell the Doctor how sorry they were that they had seemed unfriendly to him at the beach. They had never seen a white man before and had really been afraid of him—especially when they saw him conversing with the porpoises. They had thought he was the Devil, they said.The revised edition changes 'a white man' to 'a man like him' (which seems rather vague) and makes 'devil' lower-case.
In some cases the changes seem completely bizarre. When I first heard that the books had been purged of racism I immediately thought of this passage, in which the protagonists discover that a sailor has stowed away on their boat and eaten all their salt beef (p. 142):
"I don't know what the mischief we're going to do now," I heard her whisper to Bumpo. "We've no money to buy any more; and that salt beef was the most important part of the stores."I was expecting major changes to this passage, or its complete removal. I would never have guessed the changes that were actually made. Here is the revised version of the passage, with the changed part marked in boldface:
"I don't know what the mischief we're going to do now," I heard her whisper to Bumpo. "We've no money to buy any more; and that salt beef was the most important part of the stores."The reference to 'white men' has been removed, but rest of passage, which I would consider to be among the most potentially offensive of the entire book, with its association of Bumpo with cannibalism, is otherwise unchanged. I was amazed. It is interesting to notice that the references to cannibalism have been excised from a passage on page 30:
"There were great doings in Jolliginki when he left. He was scared to death to come. He was the first man from that country to go abroad. He thought he was going to be eaten by white cannibals or something.The revised edition cuts the sentence about white cannibals. The rest of the paragraph continues:
"You know what those niggers are—that ignorant! Well!—But his father made him come. He said that all the black kings were sending their sons to Oxford now. It was the fashion, and he would have to go. Bumpo wanted to bring his six wives with him. But the king wouldn't let him do that either. Poor Bumpo went off in tears—and everybody in the palace was crying too. You never heard such a hullabaloo."The revised version reads:
"But his father made him come. He said that all the African kings were sending their sons to Oxford now. It was the fashion, and he would have to go. Poor Bumpo went off in tears—and everybody in the palace was crying too. You never heard such a hullabaloo."The six paragraphs that follow this, which refer to the Sleeping Beauty subplot from the previous book, The Story of Doctor Dolittle, have been excised. (More about this later.)
There are some apparently trivial changes:
"Listen," said Polynesia, "I've been breaking my head trying to think up some way we can get money to buy those stores with; and at last I've got it."The revised edition omits 'stupid'. (p.155) On page 230:
"Poor perishing heathens!" muttered Bumpo. "No wonder the old chief died of cold!"becomes
"No wonder the old chief died of cold!" muttered Bumpo.I gather from other people's remarks that the changes to The Story of Doctor Dolittle were much more extensive. In Story (in which Bumpo first appears) there is a subplot that concerns Bumpo wanting to be made into a white prince. The doctor agrees to do this in return for help escaping from jail.
When I found out this had been excised, I thought it was unfortunate. It seems to me that it was easy to view the original plot as a commentary on the cultural appropriation and racism that accompanies colonialism. (Bumpo wants to be a white prince because he has become obsessed with European fairy tales, Sleeping Beauty in particular.) Perhaps had the book been left intact it might have sparked discussion of these issues. I'm told that this subplot was replaced with one in which Bumpo wants the Doctor to turn him into a lion.